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Archive for Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Landmark dilemma

How far should the city go to shore up the struggling Eldridge Hotel?

June 24, 2003

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It would be a shame for the Eldridge Hotel to fall into a state of disrepair and disuse. That being said, it's a tricky proposition for the city to figure out what kind of public support is appropriate and feasible for the private enterprise that owns and operates the hotel.

Kansas Department of Revenue officials recently visited the hotel and confiscated cash as partial payment on the $108,982 the hotel owes in unpaid guest, sales and Kansas withholding taxes. The hotel also owes $188,814 in property taxes to the county. If the taxes aren't paid, the building could be sold at auction.

There is no doubt it is a Lawrence landmark. The current building is the third hotel to stand on the site at Seventh and Massachusetts streets. The two previous structures were destroyed by pro-slavery forces, once in 1856 and again during Quantrill's famous raid in 1863. Col. Shalor Eldridge rebuilt the hotel both times and the second structure stood until 1925, when the deteriorated building was replaced using private funds from a group of Lawrence business leaders.

Hotels gave way to motor inns and the Eldridge was converted into apartments in the early 1970s. In 1985, a group organized by Rob Phillips converted the building back to a hotel. The private investors put up $1 million and were assisted by $2 million in interest-free industrial revenue bonds approved by the city.

In recent years, business at the Eldridge has declined. The economy and competition from other hotels is part of the problem, but the main issue, Phillips says, is parking. Phillips points to the former Riverfront Plaza parking lot where SpringHill Suites was allowed to purchase 138 parking spaces and says he deserves a similar break. The city has denied Phillips' request to reserve the 24 parking spaces just west of the hotel for Eldridge guests. Unlike the Riverfront lot, which was built expressly to serve that building, the lot west of the Eldridge was financed by a benefit district including all the nearby property owners and it would be unfair, the city says, to designate it for a single business. How would nearby businesses fare if parking spaces were reduced for their customers?

Perhaps the city can work with the Eldridge owners on parking, but the hotel would have to be willing to also help itself. Some decked parking might be possible over the city lot west of the hotel but the small size of the lot makes such a project questionable. The vacant lot south of the building on Massachusetts Street also might have been utilized for parking if it hadn't been sold by the Eldridge several years ago. Whatever measures are taken to improve parking, it would be reasonable for the hotel to share in the expense.

The bottom line for most local residents who have observed the Eldridge over the last several years is that parking alone won't solve the hotel's problems. As Mayor David Dunfield noted recently, the Eldridge is "an important anchor for downtown, but the city doesn't have the responsibility for managing it and ensuring its success."

The city made a significant contribution to preserving the hotel with the 1985 bond issue; perhaps some additional support is warranted. However, it's imperative that the Eldridge's owners and operators be full partners in the effort. The hotel is a beautiful structure with tremendous potential, but even if additional parking is provided, people won't patronize the Eldridge if it doesn't provide good, friendly service and attractive facilities.

It obviously will be less expensive to preserve the Eldridge Hotel now than to try to reclaim it at some point in the future if it is allowed to stand vacant or deteriorate. But city officials must carefully weigh any taxpayer investment in shoring up the current operation.

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